Opinion: we won’t be able to please many of the people for much of the time

Earlier this month Stephen Tall offered, in The Saturday Debate, ‘Local government is to the Lib Dems what the unions are to Labour and big business is to the Tories‘.

What Stephen’s view does underline is that, unless the Party achieves an unexpected breakthrough and wins a General Election outright, its place is more likely to be as a junior partner in a coalition government, which offers the choice between working with a group supported by the most ruthless of business leaders or by the, oft power crazed, union barons. This will, as demonstrated by the latest debate on graduate funding, necessitate the frequent agreement to policies fundamentally at odds with the membership’s wishes. Presently the Party is in danger of losing credibility unless it has some immoveable core values, these in turn would ensure a more loyal core vote.

The most important group not represented by the two largest parties are ‘the people’ themselves. Local government is closer to them than either the leaders of the business community or the leaders of the Trade Unions, however – not that close. In our system of democracy, that which was originally conceived as ‘the will of the people’, the will of the grandees of one of these groups will always prevail in this dance of alternating dictatorships.

Representative democracy was necessary because clearly it was impossible to ask all of the people their views on every issue. However, representatives, in this misleading title, have never considered it their role to represent the majority view of their constituents, not even the views of those who voted for them, although some account is required of this if the representative wishes to continue with their political career. With the strengthening of political parties, the MPs were more keen to represent the views of their political party because their career prospects became inextricably linked to being loyal servants of that party.

Previously anyone could stand to become the local MP and would have had a fair chance of election, if they were in touch with the people’s wishes, when the primary form of communication with the electorate was from a soap box in the market square or other meeting places and a time when a simple pamphlet for each voter would not be beyond the means of the candidates. However, as the means of communications became more complex and sophisticated, successful communication by the candidates to the electorate became more difficult and with the political parties having their own manifesto and substantial funds, those who wanted a successful career in politics realized that joining one of these parties was the most practical route to success. Now, joining a political party is the only viable route to electoral success – the days of representative democracy, where the MP represents either their own or their constituents views, is over.

Government in the interest of the nation and its people was possible if their chosen representatives had a fair degree of independence and were able to honestly debate the issues of the day in the House of Commons – those who offered the best solutions to the problems of the day would have a chance of convincing their fellow MPs of the wisdom of their case. However, once this independence was compromised, in practice, just the wishes of the party grandees, business or union, became the only solutions likely to be given sufficient support to become the actions of government.

Stephen is right, the Party does need a core vote if it is to succeed in its own right and not be dragged into supporting the policies of one of these two special interest groups. Why is there any reluctance to have ‘the people’ as this core vote? It is in the people that the power should reside and it has been stolen from them through devious tricks by devious people. Direct democracy would return the power to the people and is surely a much better system than all of the alternatives to ‘first past the post’ on offer. Whatever system is used to select the peoples representatives, direct democracy would ensure that they did not stray too far from the peoples wishes.

Only the wildest optimist can view the future with anything but serious concern. Tough decisions are going to have to be made on every issues – defence, education, law and order, immigration, social services etc. The government will not be able to please many of the the people for much of the time – surely if these tough decisions have to be taken it is vital that ‘the people’ play as big a role as possible in the decision making process since it is they who will have to endure the resulting hardships – direct democracy offers a system whereby this can be the case. It is also the route to the ‘big society’ and would re-enfranchise a disenfranchised people.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • which core vote are you looking for? The Tory like actions of the lib dems only leave core Tory votes and these have been taken by the right wing already.

  • “Why is there any reluctance to have ‘the people’ as this core vote?”

    Because ‘the people’ are not united in how they want to deal with problems. Some are right wing, some are left wing, some are neither, and some are somewhere in between. Trying to represent ‘the people’ means facing too many directions at once, unless you decide there is a particular group of ‘the people’ that you want as your core vote.

    Just saying, let’s give ‘the people’ more of a say doesn’t give us a core vote – those people don’t need to necessarily agree with us, nor are they guaranteed to ‘reward’ us for giving them more of a say with their loyalty, and why indeed should they if the objective is to give them the freedom to choose, which must surely include the freedom to reject us?

    One thing’s for sure though. We cannot rely on students to be our core vote. They are a fickle bunch.

  • All well and good but the LibDems had the chance to win over the core vote of people by pledges on tution fees – whatever the rights or wrongs of the proposals themselves this has now blown firmly up in your faces I’m afraid – a lot of people saw you as the new face of politics – and Clegg promised you were the new face of politics – but the people are not going to be that forgiving of you now they have seen what that means in practice.

  • John Roffey 13th Oct '10 - 3:38pm

    @ pat roche

    You do realise that this is a plea for the Party to support Direct Democracy – people power – as opposed to representative democracy. A system which has been in operation in Switzerland for the last 160 years?


  • John Roffey 13th Oct '10 - 7:44pm

    @ George Kendall

    A system of direct democracy can work and work well – the Swiss being the best example, they would not agree to the government of the day incurring massive debts for their children and their children’s children. However, it would have to be introduced gradually one area at a time to make sure the electorate were sufficiently knowledgeable to be capable of making informed judgements.

    I am afraid representative democracy has become the preserve of special interest groups and and is beyond salvation. Those the system was intended to serve have been left unrepresented.

  • Not having had a chance to get on the laptop much for the last couple of days, it was nice to see this article. I was beginning to think that the LDs were going to form a branch of “outrage R us” (which is quite annoying tbh) – so thank you John!!

    Whilst the idea of a Swiss style democracy may seem to have appeal, a few things need to be remembered:

    a. Switzerland is far smaller than us (population wise – they’re about 7 – 8 mill), it will always be easier to set up that sort of system of direct democracy in smaller countries.

    b. Although it may have been around for 160 years, it will have taken centuries to get to a point that matched their general requirements, it other words it was a case of evolution and not revolution (of course, the same can be said of most systems of governance).

    c. Whilst some one can put forward a change to the constitution if they obtain 100k signatures on a petition, it doesn’t actually mean that a majority vote by the population for that change will occur. Because the majority of the people and the majority of the cantons must agree, it can mean that the suggestion is rejected by a majority of cantons who, by themselves, do not have a majority of the population.

    d. I’m always wary of trying to take one form of democracy and trying to overlay it some where else, it can have unforeseen consequences (admittedly not always bad maybe, but are we willing to take a chance on the hope that they are good). This would smack more of revolution, as opposed to the evolution that I mentioned in point b. As a fairly bog standard human being, I would guess that this may be the prevalent view amongst the population. After all, if it wasn’t then there would be a good chance that the argument for PR would have been won long ago.

    e. If we were to scale up some of the requirements for the Swiss to match our population, the 100k signature requirement may end up around the million mark, to try and organise that would probably need some sort of campaign to organise the requested change plus a publicity campaign. Once you start going down that route then surely the same thing can apply in that the campaign is “stolen from them through devious tricks by devious people”.

    Instead of a revolution, why not start on a gentler path of evolution? The LDP, by and large, is a party of the left, hence when LD Members talk about localism it is only in the sense of transferring power from one set of unknown and (mainly) distrusted politicians to another (I think you allude to this in your article). In a follow up article to the one about LDs being LG people (John Pugh MP “What I have learned from ‘The Mafia’”), the author seems to imply that anything not controlled by a politician is Ersatz Accountability (i.e. a fake that may look like the real thing). Because he is locked into the political way of thinking, he forgot that there is an additional step to following the money. That step being the one that completes the circle by putting power back into the hands of the people who stump up the cash and letting us hold the spenders to account, hence the example of schools I used in reply to his article.
    Perhaps the gentle evolution could start there, instead of trying to replace the system you could start by trying to evolve the current system to one that is truly accountable to the taxpayer. This would not be easy, you would be fighting many vested interests (including the interests of your own politicians), but you would be able to truly take on the crown of “defender of the people”.

  • John Roffey 14th Oct '10 - 6:10pm

    @ Chris_sh

    I think you can see from my reply to George Kendall above that I do envisage a evolutionary approach to a change from representative democracy to direct democracy. By the way, as far as I am aware, these are recognised as two distinct forms of democracy. Through evolution, the form of DD we ended up with would be unique to the UK and not a simple copy of the Swiss model.

    The L/Ds, if they did advocate the system could, for instance, promise that any of their successful candidates at the next election would consult with their constituents on subjects xy&z and be bound by their majority view. The Party is likely to be in need of brownie points by then and this step along the road to DD might encourage support [it certainly would not discourage it] – I wonder what the constituents view would be on tuition fees!

    Your point with regard population I also see as important. My solution here would be to split England into its old kingdoms Mercia, Wessex etc. for administrative purposes and give each a parliament powers identical to that of Scotland, with say 50 representatives from each attending the HofC. Experience has shown that nations of less than 10m are most successful and this would give each of these old kingdoms a chance to show what they could do.

    I must admit I do baulk at the term ‘taxpayer’ with regard to these matters. The implication is that only taxpayers have rights which implies that those who do not pay taxes have none. Since unemployment is usually caused by poor government, I prefer the term citizen, each of whom have the same rights.

  • @John Roffey
    Posted 14th October 2010 at 6:10 pm

    “if they did advocate the system could, for instance, promise that any of their successful candidates at the next election would consult with their constituents on subjects xy&z”

    So, it would be a sort of proving ground if you like, to show that it is sustainable over a period of 4 to 5 years (we obviously have to assume that there wouldn’t be an early election for the purposes of planning).

    I would guess that you’d need some sort of online voting system, as opposed to people traipsing to the polling booth (although you would still need some form of internet booth for those who aren’t online).

    What would constitute a valid vote? Seems a strange Q at first, but will there be a cut off point that will bind the MP (e.g. over 30% say)? Or could it be on a percentage relevant to the actual vote received, so if an MP was elected on 30% of the eligible voters, a vote of at least 40% of eligible of voters would be needed to ensure it wasn’t just all the MP’s supporters turning up (I mean % of those eligible to vote, rather than those who bother to vote).

    “My solution here would be to split England into its old kingdoms…”

    I would be a bit wary of that, it may be seen as an attempt to split England into “politically manageable” areas (i.e. split the power of England as a whole). I assume the end game would be to replace the old county councils etc (otherwise it would just be another level of bureaucracy).

    Also, if you can make the individual voter feel like part of the system there may not be a need for a canton style split. I would assume that the plan would also include some form of recall mechanism to guard against the desire for political advancement overtaking the need to accurately reflect the will of the constituents (no mechanism for effective redress actually undermines any belief in accountability and has helped to reduce the trust in all politicians)?

    “I must admit I do baulk at the term ‘taxpayer’ with regard to these matters….”

    Except of course, even the unemployed etc are tax payers, i.e. they pay VAT/fuel duty and so forth.

    In all, an interesting concept, but I think I’d want to know a lot more before making up my mind.

  • John Roffey 14th Oct '10 - 9:58pm

    @ Chris_sh

    Yes there would have to be a high degree of faith in the system and yes via the internet is the obvious choice – this would allow debate before the vote was held. I would have thought that two separate systems operating from independent centers would provide sufficient security for the vote – if the banks can keep the vast majority of fraud at bay – then the technology must be available. I think internet connection is now above 70% and that libraries offer a public service which could be used for those who are not connected.

    As long as everyone knew that the sitting MP would be bound by the wishes of the constituents and were able to vote – a simple majority should be enough. Although the vast majority in any constituency may have voted for a particular MP, I very much doubt that they would hold the same views on every issue and they would have no real need to be loyal since the MP was asking for their opinion to guide how they should vote. This does not imply passivity – there is no reason why the MP should not engage in the debate.

    I agree that dividing England into the old kingdoms and giving each a parliament would be contentious, but apart from the benefit of providing an administration which the people could identify more easily with, it would also remove the anomaly which allows Scottish MPs to vote on English matters. A decision on this would be best made by the people themselves! 🙂

  • @John Roffey
    Posted 14th October 2010 at 9:58 pm

    “then the technology must be available”
    Oh absolutely, the electoral register is there so it could be just a case of sending registered voters a use-once key to log on and vote.

    “This does not imply passivity – there is no reason why the MP should not engage in the debate.”
    Although it could lead to the rather strange situation where an MP argued against something, but was required to vote for it.

    I have to admit that this wouldn’t effect me as I live in Wales, but if I did live in England I don’t think I would go for it.

    Again, if you could get a system where the MP truly must abide by the wishes of those who elected him, then I don’t really see a need to split England up.

    “…Scottish MPs to vote on English matters…”
    Well yes, but there again that could be fixed quite easily now by allowing only English MPs to vote on English only matters. The trouble being that MPs keep coming up with reasons why this isn’t a good idea, they then wonder why people in England don’t trust them anymore.

    “…MP was asking for their opinion to guide how they should vote…”
    A bit pedantic I know, but don’t you actually mean “…specify how they should vote..”. Opinion and guide sounds a little like advice, which may or may not be heeded.

    I meant to ask before, but was obviously suffering from brain fatigue – what would be the things you exclude? I would assume that defence would have to stay out? For the reasons mentioned by George K I would also assume taxation would have to be excluded? There must be other things that you’ve thought of that would need more expert input & time to study than most people would have time for.

    Oh, and the other bit I meant to say but forgot (it really must be an age thing 😀 ):
    ” wonder what the constituents view would be on tuition fees!”
    If I was a betting man – university towns would be against the raise, non-university towns would be for the raise 🙂

  • John Roffey 16th Oct '10 - 6:55pm

    @ Chris_sh

    On passivity: it seems to me that, in an area where the MP has undertaken to vote in accordance with the people’s wishes, there is no reason why they should not argue their case if it was an important issue to them [it might also be the majority view]. With a discussion forum set up for each constituency, it would be helpful in every way if the matter was the subject of discussion well before the vote was required. That the MP had to vote against their own personal view would not be unusual under the present arrangement, the only difference would be that it would be the constituents view rather than that of their party managers’.

    I think the break-down of England into the old kingdoms is a red herring at the moment. I do believe there would be significant advantages, but I think I would prefer to make this case as a separate issue.

    On: “…MP was asking for their opinion to guide how they should vote…”
    A bit pedantic I know, but don’t you actually mean “…specify how they should vote..”. Opinion and guide sounds a little like advice, which may or may not be heeded.

    Again two separate issues have become confused. There is an eventual stage where ‘specify how they should vote’ would be reached, but I had suggested that the L/D MPs, if the system were to be adopted by the Party, could operate a trial system in the life of this parliament – this would be more advisory initially.

    What would be excluded: Sorry to be vague, but theoretically nothing. So much would depend on the constituents ability to understand each issue to be able to make informed judgements. I am of the view that the public at large have an increasing disinterest in politics primarily because they generally don’t trust politicians, they believe they are in it for their own personal gain and are not likely to act in constituents interest instead of their own. This is born out by the fact that around 75% turned out for GE’s post war and until the new millennium. Since then t/o has struggled to reach 60%.

    Once the constituents understood that their wishes were becoming increasingly influential – I believe there would be a rapid advance through the learning curve.

    On how would the constituents vote: I have far greater faith in the collected will – I believe the matter would generally judged more objectively.

  • @John Roffey
    Posted 16th October 2010 at 6:55 pm

    Obviously there are one or 2 things that we probably won’t see eye to eye on (e.g. giving a say on defence and tax), but overall it doesn’t seem to bad an idea (but it would obviously need more in depth work to get it going).

    So as a non-LD, can I ask if there is a process for actually getting ideas from LDV onto the Party path for consideration?

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